When faced with the prospect of a holiday in The Bahamas, what are your first thoughts?
Caribbean Paradise • Tax Haven • Pirates • Coral Reefs • Cruise Ships • Rum • Millionaires • Secluded Beaches • Colonialism • James Bond
These are some common notions that popped into my head when I was invited to stay as a guest of some of the world’s economic ‘top 1%’ recently, and they got me wondering about this beautiful place of dreams and notoriety.
Firstly, The Bahamas isn’t in the Caribbean ¬– it’s a group of over 700 islands, cays, and islets in the Atlantic Ocean. Although it became an independent realm in 1973, Queen Elizabeth is still the Head of State (and Edward VIII was infamously appointed Governor of the Bahamas in 1940 after he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson).
It’s early history is pretty dark – the first inhabitants of the islands, some 40,000 Lucayans, were completely wiped out by the arrival of Europeans who used them as slaves after Christopher Columbus made the first local claim for Spain in 1492 en route to America.
Spain’s main interest in the islands was slavery and, eventually, they were handed over to Britain in exchange for East Florida – descendants of the slave trade now make up 85-90% of the population. Many of the white minority are descendants of English Puritans fleeing religious persecution and American Loyalists escaping revolution or, more recently, those seeking financial benefits plus an A-list lifestyle.
The natural beauty is unquestionable. The Bahamas has some of the most exotic and intriguing natural phenomena on the planet, including the world’s deepest blue hole, the third-largest fringing barrier reef, and largest colony of pink flamingos (plus the amazing swimming pigs!). The beaches are in abundance – with powder white, sometimes coral pink, sand and turquoise waters awash with marine life. Many think The Bahamas stems from the Spanish word bajamar, meaning ‘shallow water’. These shallows lead safely from the beaches way into the distance to coral reefs fringed by walls that plunge down into the ocean abyss and provide superlative diving. Sunken Spanish galleons, inland blue holes and underwater caves attract divers worldwide.
Without the aid of rum, I went on a ‘shark dive’ and watched the dive master feed reef sharks as they circled us with ever-increasing vigour; then a ‘James Bond’ dive on a crashed airplane that had been used in the Thunderball movie. (I also photographed my husband in blue Speedo’s exiting the surf in a replication of the acclaimed Craig Daniels ‘swimwear moment’ in Casino Royale!)
But you don’t need to dive – you can just pop your head under water right by Nassau (the capital on New Providence) and see healthy coral, reef fishes, rays, even turtles. Day-trippers swarm from the colossal cruise ships that dock at Nassau during the tourist season but they tend to stay close to port for¬ shopping, schmoozing the pastel-coloured British Colonial buildings, rum drinking or perhaps visiting the Pirates of Nassau attraction (it rains hard sometimes).
Rum is rife! Ranging from high-end John Watling’s rum (the only rum still brewed locally) to best-known Barcardi (now brewed elsewhere, but available in plentiful blends and flavours).
The ‘jolly pirate’ connection is well-played by the tourist trade, which I find odd as my understanding is that pirates were murderous thieves and rapists. The ‘golden age’ of such behaviour was 1690 to 1720, apparently, and Nassau was at its heart. Still, a particularly chirpy pirate-plus-parrot delights visitors as they enter airport immigration.
The Out Islands (anywhere excluding New Providence and Freeport) are where to find deserted, pristine paradise and to spot the super rich – The Exumas and The Abacos are favourites. I visited Eleuthera Island, which felt a little bleak just off-season, but the timing meant I had every single divine beach I visited entirely to myself.
Finally, I arrived at the Albany Club where I wrestled briefly with my socialist principles as I conversed with Hedge Fund Managers and Tax Lawyers while being served by black-only staff, Colonial-style. The Albany is an elite villa resort development backed by Joe Lewis, (owner of Tottenham Hotspur). It has a gym frequented by movie stars, several pools, golf course, spa and private cinema – it’s playtime heaven centered on the beachfront area where Craig took his famous dip.
Thanks heavens I was staying with locals as The Bahamas is generally very expensive. Although The Albany presents a super-stark example of wealth inequality, the average income is $12,000 a year and the poverty rate in the realm has declined to about 5%, which is low by international standards. These facts soothed my conscience as I sipped my Mojito in my body-contouring Tesco bikini and surveyed some of the richest and most beautiful people in the world.
Words & Pictures: Jane Cooke at firstname.lastname@example.org